Mackinac Island, MI + Lake Huron

Over the years, my mom and her best friend referred back to memories of a magical island where they visited during the summer immediately following their college graduation. In fact, my mom’s friend fell in love with it so much, that she returned to work on the island for the summer. They camped on the shore of Lake Huron and took a ferry onto the island. There were no cars on the island, so people got around by horseback, horse drawn carriage, or bicycle. While mom and Ruth aren’t that old, I felt like there was no way that these traditions were still in tact. There was no way that such a place would still exist. After a second of research and few conversations with folks who still frequent the island, I was assured that it was still frozen in these traditions, and Mackinac Island was definitely worth a visit.

So, leading up to a summer wedding in Grand Rapids last year, I suggested that my parents and I make a trek to Michigan. I’d drive solo to GR, they’d ferry across the lake, drive the coast of Lake Michigan, and we’d meet on Mackinac Island before driving back Westward through the UP to spend a week at our cottage. It seemed like the perfect way to spend a week.

I was not prepared for the culture shock that awaited on the other side of the ferry. My solo drive from GR to Mackinaw City to catch said ferry was long, gray, and still gorgeous. You never realize how huge these midwestern states are until you’re two hours into a drive, still two hours from a destination, and definitely alone on the roads. But as I pulled up to the port, a college-aged boy with way too many questions helped me with my bags and took my car off my hands. The rain began to fall as we boarded the boat, and I was anxious as ever to get to the hotel, close my eyes, and let the slow take over.

As I mentioned, I was not prepared. As we pulled up to the island, the rain steadily coming down, I was surprised at the lack of lights guiding us in. I imagined a big port city, full of tourists in bars, etc. I was wrong. This little “main drag” where the boats docked was quiet, despite the 108th Race to Mackinac taking place. My mom had briefed me over the phone about what color the hotel’s carriages were and what the driver would be wearing. I assumed that this would be clearly labeled, but turns out I should have been paying closer attention to her notes, as I landed on shore confused as hell about how to get to our hotel. Thank goodness for the kind folks who know to look for confused travelers like me, they directed me to the carriage to Mission Point and I was on my way to my parents.

We had only one full day to explore the island before we left early on Tuesday, but we packed that Sunday evening through Tuesday morning with the best the island had to offer. Come along...

Favorite lake?  Huron, the second largest of our Great Lakes, is also the fifth largest freshwater lake on the planet. It’s long shoreline (longest of the Great Lakes) is dotted with islands - 30,000 to be exact - contributing to those many thousands of miles of shoreline. I’ve been on this lake before, near Port Huron on the Easternmost side of the Mitten State, and what shocked me then - the bold hues, clear-to-bottom views, and crisp temps - held true around Mackinac Island as well. From certain angles, Huron looked tropically blue and green, which is stunning in contrast to the coniferous forests that dot the shores.  

Closest major city & airport? Mackinaw City has a tiny airport if you were determined to fly as close to the island as possible, but the major airports are Grand Rapids (miles, hours), Flint, Detroit, or Chicago. Nearby tourist town Traverse City also has a small airport, but your best bet is to fly to a main hub and drive in. And because Michigan is gorgeous and littered with beautiful sights, especially along any of its shores, you won’t regret this.

Once you get to Mackinaw City, you’ll need to ferry in. The two main lines are: Shepler’s and Star Line (has a hydro jet that makes a rooster tail spray that’s fun to watch from shore). Both are huge, easy to ride, and offer roof-top decks with absolutely stunning views. Best enjoyed on a warm, sunny day. The views from these ferries include the Mackinac Bridge, a spectacular bridge connecting Northern Michigan to the Upper Peninsula (aka, Wisconsin...kidding...kind of).

Distance to nearest grocery store?  Unless you’re a local, you probably won’t be needing a grocery store. But there is only one on the island, Doud’s. As such, it’s expensive but surprisingly well-equipped with most anything you could need. Locals and guests who have vacationed here regularly tend to shop off-island and then bring their goods back to the island with carts on the backs of their bikes.

Reason lake is important to you/your family? A new adventure. When you have a beloved family cottage, it can be tempting to settle into a routine of simply going where you’re comfortable. I’d like to consider our family one of adventure-seekers, but we haven’t applied this same approach to the midwest. Spending time on Mackinac renewed this sense of adventure and was the reminder that there is so much to explore within a drive from home. Each time our souls have an itch to explore something new, that doesn’t have to mean a complicated itinerary, a passport, and a flight.

Favorite lake activities, foods, or traditions?

  • Biking around the island - bikes are for rent everywhere, and while circling the outer trail of the island can be done quite quickly, there are over 70 miles of trails to explore if you head inland. Do stop and climb up to Arch Rock within the first few minutes of the ride.
  • Find the adirondack chairs on the giant lawn of the Mission Point Hotel. Bring a to-go cup of wine and watch the day go by. On a sunny afternoon, there aren’t many spots in the world better than this.
  • Parasail, kayak, get on the water. The waters surrounding this island may be chilly, but they’re gorgeous and clear. Regardless of how you choose to get on the water, you won’t be disappointed with the unique perspective of what’s below the water’s surface.
  • Horse drawn carriage tour of the island. A great option if you’re not into biking.
  • Sail! Mackinac Island is both an end point and a starting point in the annual Race to Mackinac (From Detroit and then to Chicago). If you’re not a sailor, it’s still fun to be downtown during this time, check out the gorgeous boats coming/going, and get to know the sailors and hear their stories from the water.
  • Explore the State Parks. The island is full of history, as it has served as home to the governor of Michigan during summers, and Fort Mackinac was stronghold in the Great Lakes.

What to do when it rains?

  • This is your opportunity to spend some time at the Grand Hotel. It’s formal, it’s not your traditional and casual lake experience, but if it’s raining, it’s well worth a look. The front porch alone might be worth the cost of admission.
  • Fudge tasting! Mackinac Island fudge shops all claim to be the island’s best, and while some may be slightly better than others, they’re all delicious and worth some taste-testing.
  • Shop the downtown area. Loads of art galleries, outfitters, gift shops, and boutiques (see below) line the downtown streets. Watch out for the horses and bikes before crossing the streets.
  • Find a bar stool and chat with the locals.

Local joints to check out (shops, restaurants)?

Where to get a fish fry? While you’ll probably have to head over to the UP or back towards the Detroit area to find a real fish fry, Northern Michigan and great lakes regions are known for their whitefish. In appetizer-form, combined with almost any seasoning and a bit of cheese, this fish spread over toasted bread or crackers is delightful. Goes great with a crisp glass of wine on any of the lakeside patios.  Our favorite meal during our stay was at the Hotel Iroquois, a gorgeous hotel set immediately lakeside, with a huge patio overlooking both the island's downtown and the lake. This is also a perfect spot to watch the ferries come and go from the island.

Lessons learned at the lake? Unplug. You’ve made a point to make the not-so-easy trek to the island, so allow yourself to settle into a slower pace now that you’ve arrived. The island has made a point to keep things reminiscent of times past. I’d encourage you to follow that lead, letting yourself simply take in a slower experience so different than the hustle of the daily grind. Enjoy the fact that it’s going to take quite a bit of effort for people to find you here, even if they really need you. Cell service was available fairly consistently across the island, but I was intentional about keeping my phone mostly tucked away, my email unsynced, and my out of office message loud and clear - I’M IN ANOTHER WORLD. What feels awfully uncertain for a short adjustment period soon feels really, really refreshing. Without notifications and messages and context switching in our lives, we’re able to be totally present with the scenery and people immediately around us. Enjoy that, forget the rest. Bonus: enjoy the fact that you’ll have to use your legs to get from place-to-place, so this means you can have seconds of dessert, and obviously seconds of fudge...because you’ll work it off.